Monday, March 19, 2012

Don't Fear The Reapers

For the past few years I’ve been afflicted with a modern condition known as ME. It can lead to bouts of extreme tiredness and a reluctance to move from the couch. Unlike chronic fatigue syndrome, these are entirely voluntary states and very much down to personal choice. I mean, if I stay up into the small hours and because of my condition, I have no one to blame but myself.

Although the developers at Bioware should share some of the culpability, since they unleashed ME on an unsuspecting populace. Yes, that’s right – it’s an artificially engineered virus that has been systematically released in phases by an evil corporation that put black ops research giant, Cerberus, to shame.

My own Mass Effect condition recently reached stage 3 and I know I’m not alone in this regard.

It’s addictive and habit-forming. The worst part has been the waiting between phases. And I’m an insomniac anyway, so what’s a little tiredness? Now that I’ve completed my first playthrough of this third and final (?) instalment, I feel I have a chance of keeping my habit under control. Although it would be useless denial to claim that it was over. There’s sure to be more DLC, I have other playthroughs with other characters to look forward to and while the story was always intended to be a trilogy, there is vast scope for further tales to be told within the Mass Effect universe.

In reviewing this closing chapter of one of the most significant video games to have graced any console system, I will endeavour to steer a spoiler-free course as much as possible. Story counts and I wouldn’t want to undermine that for anyone who’s not completed – or perhaps not even begun – the journey.

In many respects, the series has been an amalgam of everything that there is to love about scifi, borrowing elements from a host of other fictional universe to create its own. It’s what Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption did for the Western genre and that worked beautifully – and I don’t especially like Westerns. The developers poured in vast quantities of talent and the results have been spectacular, immersive and enduring.

Gorgeous cinematics combine with movie-quality score to beat most experiences you’re likely to get at the local flicks. One of the standout innovations of the original was its cinematic approach to dialogue exchanges and this feature has been retained throughout, while here in the crucial third instalment they’ve managed a key evolution in the flow between cut-scenes and gameplay action. It’s more fluid and more involving as a result.

Storywise, all I can safely say is, it delivers.

Being honest, I didn’t necessarily get the outcome I wanted for my character – a true paragon and hero, if ever there was one – but it was ultimately the right choice for her. And the path – or paths – taken to get there were fraught with challenges, difficulties, sacrifices, ups, downs, twists, turns, highs and lows – everything, in short, to ensure a satisfying dramatic journey.

The climactic finale is nothing short of an epic all-action movie in its own right. Fair enough, there was no absolute obligation to play it through all in one sitting but once I was committed I couldn’t break off. So, be warned and be prepared for a full-on battle through a war-torn urban landscape that makes the D-Day landings from Saving Private Ryan look like a Sunday School outing to the beach. It’s relentless and varied, which is a tough recipe to pull off, but utterly compelling.

Thematically, the overall story arc is up there with Alastair Reynolds, even if it doesn’t have his degree in physics. It’s a smarter, more mature Star Wars, with a reservoir of influences that includes the literary as much as movie and popular culture SF. But alongside the depth and gloom and serious galactic-scale menace, there’s a vibrant palette of colours and – SF authors take note – it never forgets to season it with a wonderful sense of humour.

The artwork and design work are second to none and in terms of visual concepts – aliens, spaceships, technology, worlds and environments etc - this is the most innovative, distinctive sci-fi universe to have graced my TV screen since Farscape. Even the biggest, baddest enemies – the Reapers - are things of beauty. And sure, there are disgustingly ugly creatures too, but they are drawn and detailed and brought to life with love. And more labour of love has gone on below the surface - if you bother to read any of the codex entries you find along your way, you realise how much craft and attention has gone into the encyclopaedic background that helps glue this universe together. It’s awe-inspiring before you’ve even started getting to grips with playing the game.

The architects of this playground care about your experience.

As to the gameplay, for this third outing there’s something of a return to the original for some elements – the upgrading and modifying of equipment, for example – while once again the game feels like an evolved version of the one you already knew. Which is exactly what you want. That sense of continuity – of adventuring in the same universe – is even more key to Mass Effect, with its facility for preserving the choices of a single character from previous instalments – but other series could learn a lesson or two from this one. The controls are immediately familiar, as are the ‘rules’ of the universe, while there have been definite tweaks and adjustments.

The Kinect compatibility, by the way, is pretty neat and being able to speak your dialogue options or bark commands at your squad members in the heat of a gun battle is as cool as a cryo round. To be fair, it worked better with headphones on, since in the noisiest and busiest of fights the TV sound output interfered some with the voice recognition at times and there were occasions when issuing commands felt like giving orders to a cat. “Liara: Singularity” might as well have been “Viola: Quit clawing the sofa”, for example. Still, for the most part it was impressive and handy, but for the particularly frantic battles I tended to revert to the control wheel for more effective control of the squad.

On Normal difficulty, the engagements are often tough but but do-able with a balance of skill, sensible tactics and a spoonful of luck – which seems well-gauged to generate a reasonable challenge.

Of course, another of the tricks Mass Effect is exemplary at is understanding that how the quiet spells compliment the manic adrenaline-fuelled gunfights and there’s similar scope here for peaceful exploring, shopping and quality personal time with your team mates. They’ve expanded the boundaries for interpersonal exchanges to some extent, in that you now get to hook up with your crew for chats on the Citadel (chats used to be confined to shipboard get-togethers), while at the same time they’ve limited some exchanges to the kind of non-cinematic button-press sequences that in ME 2 were confined to DLC extra characters. It’s something of a compromise, but the characters themselves are as richly drawn as ever – human or alien, they feel like real three-dimensional inhabitants of their universe – and the voice acting (the importance of which many games still underestimate) is top-notch. It’s worth lingering here and there to eavesdrop on some of the incidental background conversations too.

Interestingly, if I had to give vent to a gripe or quibble it would be in the interpersonal relations department. While everything else appears to have evolved with each game in the series, there was room for one improvement that has been entirely overlooked. Given that there’s room for your character to rekindle a past romance, it’s a shame there couldn’t have been more innovation on that front. The romantic objective is just that – you score an achievement for, well, scoring. Hence, if any given character takes your fancy, you’re free to pursue, but at some point – i.e. once you’ve won them over – it comes to a stop and all the talk is just business until just before the endgame.

So, if developers really want to explore some growth for the next generation of console-based RPGs, how about the idea of maintenance of relationships – whether that be for romances or friendships – or heck, even rivalries?

Dragon Age: Origins incorporated the idea of a sliding scale disposition for each character towards your hero(ine) and that was okay, although I’d have preferred it if the scale was invisible to the player. Imagine that: interactions based on your behaviour without being able to measure the results on a ruler. That would give the illusion of sophistication, at least, and instead of featuring getting laid as the ultimate goal and an achievement to be checked off, there might be room for further growth and development beyond that. Fair enough in a single movie, it’s acceptable for to close with lovers sealing the deal with a kiss, but in a series with recurring characters it’s customary to progress relationships. Maybe that’s a tall order, but I would think the secret lay in the writing and software development rather than the technology and – on every other front – the ME writers and programmers seem perfectly adept and capable, so let’s see an attempt at that.

Other than that, I’d have trouble finding anything to complain about.

There are, as with all major software releases, a few glitches. But only a fraction of those I encountered in the equally epic but somehow lesser (sorry, guys) Skyrim. The funniest one was when I’m introduced to a a floaty drone thing called Glyph and my character follows it around the room with her eyes. Then for the rest of the dialogue exchange she’s standing there with her head turned comically to one side, doubtless emerging with a severe crick in her neck. Amusing, but nothing crucial.

There’s a bit of a glitch in the importing of your character from previous games and I had to reconstruct my character’s face (not as painful as it sounds), taking care she looked the same. You might not be so bothered, but like I said continuity matters with this series – it’s one of the big selling points.

It’s why I’d have to own up to some disappointment regarding some of my earlier choices in the series that I felt weren’t sufficiently reflected. Again, resisting the way of the spoiler, they relate to what I did regarding the Rachni Queen and the fate of the Collector base from the second game. I’m not sure how difficult it would have been to program, but I was looking for those decisions to make a more significant difference.

What was never a feature before, let alone a selling point, was a multiplayer aspect. This was something of a contentious addition to the franchise, since the game never needed it and there were fears it would weaken and detract from the main game. Rest easy, because it’s an okay addition which takes nothing away from the central story. It’s still a bit unnecessary and while your efforts contribute to the outcome, apparently you can get by without it, just by amassing as many resources and forces in your favour as possible. But to be honest, I was a completist and I played enough multiplayer to up my state of readiness to 100% and I kind of wish my efforts had more of an impact – at least on the military cost of the end campaign. The absolute best you can attain for the final assault is a strategic assessment of, “Chances of success are even.”

There are, I’ll wager, no easy victories. No walks in the park. But then, if video gamers were into walks in the park they’d be outside enjoying some fresh air.
As it is, my ME condition is one of the reasons I don’t read as much as I used to. But I’m sure I’ve said before, the gaming industry seems far more open to innovation and originality than publishing.

As an author, Mass Effect worries me, because if games continue to evolve along these lines, you can't help thinking, books, thy days are numbered. In the grand ebook debate there’s always that question of whether folks ultimately prefer a physical book in their hands, but at the end of the day it’s story that matters most. And if video games can command that as effectively as the Mass Effect trilogy has done then fewer people are going to want to sit and passively read when they can get involved in the action and the drama.

Mass Effect resonates with an overriding theme of synthetic life versus organic. Never mind ebooks versus paper. This is the competition, right here.

The Reapers are coming.

If more game experiences were like this, I may well end up reading fewer books. But on the other hand, if more game experiences were like this, should I fear that?

It’s a conflict.


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